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Waste, Luxury and Excess

This post was contributed by Bryony Merritt of Birkbeck’s External Relations Department.

The final round-table of the Surplus symposium at Birkbeck looked at examples of waste, luxury and excess in London and New York.

Simon Choat (Kingston) began by exploring ideas about capitalism, excess and transgressions. He argued that the way we focus on capitalism often reduces everything to commoditisation. He identified excessive acts of transgression as a way to break out from the constraints of capitalism, noting that a riot is in itself an act of transgression that can’t be recuperated by capitalism, as it can’t be harnessed to the profit motive. The threat to capitalism posed by riots is what led to such an authoritarian backlash after the UK riots of 2011, he argues, but due to the disorganised nature of a riot they cannot be used as an ongoing challenge to capitalism. He posited that if capitalism is going to die it will be through its own excesses, as it is itself transgressive and constantly breaking down limitations.

Joel McKim (Birkbeck) explored with the audience the significance of Freshkills Landfill site in Staten Island. This 22,000 acre site is one of the only man-made structures visible from space, yet remains largely invisible to the majority of New Yorkers, whose rubbish it contains. The site was closed in March 2001, and then briefly reopened in September of that year to house the debris from the Twin Towers, including human remains. The site is now being landscaped to provide a public park and wetlands. A memorial was quickly incorporated into the designs following 9/11. However, this has left New York with no landfill site and no incinerators, so the city now transfers its waste to sorting stations in the poorest areas of the city, before shipping it to poorer states in the south under a largely privatised system. Joel described the park project as ‘redemptive’ – a way for New York to “overcome the limitations of our over-consuming society and change our garbage into parks”.

The project is designed to ‘immunise’ the site against its past, but Joel reminded us that the risk of leakage remains. Leachate and methane gas could break through the engineering of the landscapers, and New York now ‘leaks’ its rubbish into other, poorer states.

Joel then moved on to look at digital waste, the fastest growing waste stream in the developed world. Eighty per cent of digital waste goes to be recycled and ends up in the developed world where it is stripped for valuable metals, while simultaneously exposing the workers to dangerous levels of harmful materials such as mercury. Companies use their multinationality to evade legal restraints and create a “network of invisibility”. Currently these digital products have a structure of obsolescence built into them but Joel said that the notion of Extended Producer Responsiblitity (EPR) is now gaining traction, with the idea that producers need to be responsible from the creation to the destruction of these items, rather than passing responsibility onto consumers.

Emma M. Jones (Queen Mary’s) rounded up the day by looking at a very local issue: the paradox of London’s high-quality, reliable water supply, in contrast to the difficulty of accessing water in public spaces and the thriving bottled water industry in the city. Emma’s forthcoming book, Parched City, is a history of the water industry in London. She explained that she used drinking water as a lens to look at what she sees as an inherently political issue. Although we don’t require vast quantities of drinking water to survive, when we are forced to spend £1.60 to access 500ml, the issue of access becomes very pertinent.

Anna says that there was no significant bottled water industry in London until 1983, when the UK’s first and only water strike took place for one month, disrupting water supplies in Manchester and London and opening the gate for the bottled water industry. Anna showed a picture of an advertisement for Schweppes Abbey Well water: the official water of the Olympic Games 2012, and highlighted a further paradox – that the Thames Water treatment facility is less than one mile away from the Olympic Park and could easily have met the water needs of all the visitors.

The panel brought to an end a day of wide-ranging and pertinent debates about how globally, nationally and locally we are all tied into cultures of excess, and raised many questions about how we can and should respond to this.

Listen to the podcast of this round-table.


Scarcity, Violence and the Global Political Economy.

This post was contributed by Bryony Merritt, of Birkbeck’s External Relations Department.

In this round-table, part of the Surplus symposium, and chaired by Dr Alex Colas of the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, Sue Branford (Latin America Bureau), Anna Stavrianakis (Sussex University) and Eric Swyngedouw (Manchester University) looked at surplus and excess in agro-food systems, land-grabs, militarism and water.

Eric started the debate exploring the paradox of water, the most abundant biochemical component on the planet, lack of access to which is the number one cause of death. The scarcity of water does not exist in nature, and Eric argued that through the socially organised metabolism of nature (upon which the circulation of capital is predicated), natural products acquire social, economic and political significance: they become a commodity.

Just as water has become commoditised so has land, leading to an intensification of land-grabs, according to Sue Branford, who brought the audience’s attention to the focus on the global food system, under which up to 1 billion people go hungry. The system was imposed by the IMF on the developing world, obliging them to remove trade barriers and let multinational companies in before they could access money. This enabled the developed world to deal with the problem of surplus production by flooding the developing markets with cheap produce. It also opened the way for multinationals who, in countries such as Brazil where Sue spent many years, systematically bought all the local seed companies, obliging local farmers to purchase hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides from them. Like Eric, Sue drew attention to the paradox that these changes created: productivity and world trade increased (leading to the vast variety of foods that we see in our supermarkets), yet mechanisation introduced by multinational companies meant that fewer labourers were needed and many previously agricultural areas, such as the Argentine Pampas, have become ghost towns, as the local people lose work and move away, often to urban centres in search of work.

A further paradox which has arisen from this situation is that as land-grabs have led to an increase in agricultural exports as land is turned to use for exportable crops such as soya (which the developed world purchases as animal feed to ensure a consistent supply of cheap meat for ourselves), developing countries have become increasingly reliant on imported food and vulnerable to the fluctuations in international market prices which means that sometimes staple foods are prohibitively expensive, leading to hungry populations.

Sue described the current situation as “corporate imperialism”, albeit that the national governments are sometimes working in alliance with the corporations to conduct land-grabs in other states, such as the ProSavanna project in which the governments of Mozambique, Brazil and Japan will work in partnership to provide food security for Mozambique. Sue drew a very clear distinction between food security and food sovereignty, claiming that in reality food security enhances the status quo, whereas food sovereignty gives local people control over which crops are grown, how they are distributed, and the structural changes which are necessary. It also challenges some of the established “truths” about development, such as that in developed countries less that 5 per cent of the population work in food cultivation. Sue explained that the current “If” campaign by a coalition of development NGOs, is (wrongly) focussed on food security rather than sovereignty, and has failed to consult with local people.

Anna Stavrianakis highlighted the significant role that the arms trade and military spending have played in the economic crisis, and contrasted this with the notable absence of proposed solutions to the crisis. Using the example of Greece, Anna explained that arms purchases were central to the creation of debt problems, with no other area of spending having contributed so heavily. Yet arms purchases have not been identified as a possible savings area under any of the proposed austerity measures. Anna claimed that military spending is inherently wasteful as it is research and development of new technologies subsidised with public money, and then allows the new technologies to be privatised by arms companies.

Looking at military spending globally, Anna questioned whether we are at the beginning of a global transition. In 2012, military spending fell for the first time since 1998, by 0.5 per cent in real terms. This was mainly due to cuts by countries in the global north. However, Anna suggests that this decrease in military spending will be offset by an increase in spending in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. China increased military spending by 7.8 per cent in 2012, although it is worth noting that in absolute terms it remains well below military spending by the US.

Summing up the round-table, Eric said that excess is how we sustain the behemoth of capitalism. Capitalism needs to continually move beyond its own boundaries. The current crisis has been caused by an excess of capital, rather than a lack of it.

Listen to the round table on podcast.